After coming painfully close to not obtaining my new passport in time and then missing my flight to Dublin, I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it to Ireland last June. Which really wasn’t an option, since I was set to lead twenty-five students throughout the country on a National Geographic Student Expedition starting in a few days. But thanks to my Uber driver’s lead foot and a really nice Delta agent, I got my passport and a seat on a different flight, headed to Shannon. From there, I took a long train ride across the country to Dublin, checked into a hostel, and walked around the corner to a pub, where Guinness stew, a pint, and a copy of The Irish Times welcomed me to Ireland.
The week I spent traveling around south and southwest Ireland before starting my National Geographic duties was one of my most memorable weeks of 2014. I travel often, but almost never alone—the countries I have spent time in over the past several years are, for the most part, not ones in which I felt safe traveling around by myself.
Like many other women (and men), in my travels I’ve been grabbed at, pushed down, robbed, and verbally harassed. I dealt with these things when they occurred and moved on. The more one travels (no matter where), the more likelihood that bad—as well as wonderful—things will happen. And yet. It is hard to talk about getting hurt. As time passed, I began to see how those ugly occurrences have made me a more hyper-aware and anxious traveler. When I spent time traveling around Turkey with two good friends in July 2013, I was shocked to see that compared to them, I was far less trusting of strangers, of sketchy interactions, even of nightfall. This deeply bothered me. When did I become so jaded? I wondered resentfully. The three of us had spent a semester abroad in Ghana together in college, where we were eager and adventurous almost to a fault. Ghana opened us right up and we drank it all in, approaching every weekend trip and kind stranger and power outage and bout of malaria with overwhelming optimism and a healthy dose of innocence. When I think back to those months, I remember a sponge-like curiosity. I remember saying yes to almost everything. I do not remember feeling afraid.
So when the opportunity came the following summer to fly to Ireland early so I could travel before my co-leaders and our students arrived, I jumped at it. I felt sure I would be able to explore Ireland safely on my own, without worrying too much. I wanted to reclaim part of that carefree spirit, my modus operandi that guided me through Ghana. And so after one night in Dublin, I headed south to County Cork.
On my second night in Cork, my mother called from the States to tell me my grandfather had died. I was expecting the call, but not this soon. I had said a last goodbye to him in his home a few days earlier and knew he would pass away while I was gone. But knowing someone you love is dying does not make it easier to accept when it happens. I left the pub where I had been watching U.S. vs. Belgium in the World Cup and went around the corner to sit on the curb and listen to my mother tell me the details of Granddaddy’s death: who had been with him, what happened after, what would happen now. I felt guilty. I should be there, not here. This, surely, was why it had been so difficult to get to Ireland. I am supposed to be there, not here. When I hung up, I hugged my knees to my chest. Cars whipped around the traffic circle and I watched their headlights and cried.
The next morning, I took a bus to Blarney Castle and spent the day in the sprawling green gardens. For the first time in my life, I grieved alone. And so my week of solo travel became a time to honor my grandfather, the most traveled man I’ve ever known. That week, I explored with a sense of abandonment I had been sorely missing. I kissed the Blarney Stone. I explored the Titanic’s last port of call in Cobh. I tucked a wildflower behind my ear in Killarney National Park. I rode around the Ring of Kerry. I took an unhealthy amount of pictures of sunsets and pet many stray cats.
In Kerry, the night before I bussed back to Dublin, I took a taxi back to my hostel after having dinner in town. The driver, Joe, was so quintessentially Irish I couldn’t help but grin at every word that came out of his mouth. (And there were many words. But as Paul Theroux wrote, “To be in the presence of talkers is a gift to the writer.”)
“Here’s something for ya,” Joe began. “The other day, I was waiting for the bus. It was taking ages to come. And I was enthralled with this piece of paper flying about, getting brought up and brought down. And I said to someone, ‘How long will it stay up there?’ I couldn’t stop thinking about that little piece of paper. So when I got home, I wrote a poem about it.”
He began reciting:
Paper blowing in the wind
Is like a sailor fighting sin.
The only time that he can win
Is when he rests in heaven.
Joe smiled and looked at me through the rearview mirror. “I think everyone has a story in them, a poem in them,” he said. “It’s natural. You just gotta reach in and pull it out, ya know?”
I smiled back. I thought of Granddaddy. I thought of where I was: a small town in southwest Ireland, full from a hearty meal, the summer air streaming through my hair. I’d soon be falling asleep in a small bunk. Stars were beginning to pepper the evening sky. I was alone, and I was so far from alone.